What is a critic’s role?

It seems there are as many answers to this question as there are types of critics who do the work of criticism.

In “A Critic’s Manifesto” Daniel Mendelsohn offered a formula for criticism: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. “The key word here is meaningful,” he wrote. “People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics.”

But there is of course more going on in life that affects the work of a critic than the pursuit of knowledge, taste, and good judgment. Critics advocate for their chosen literature and they are activists in many ways; this is nothing new. For the past few years, I have read and reviewed mostly books by women (around 95%), so it’s a topic that interests me quite a bit. My focus is in some ways a response to the charge regularly weighed against some critics and journals that they defend institutions that are elitist and predominantly focused on white, male writers.

So I’m curious about the motivations that shape other critics’ decisions to write about the books they defend and those they dismiss. What are the ethical or moral dimensions of those decisions? Beyond mere conflicts of interest, what lines do they draw for themselves in their work? What personal forces or experiences affect their preferences and, as in my case, lead to resolutions about what to read and review?

During this ongoing series of interviews one central question will be, “What is a critic’s role?” But it’s a broad inquiry really, a bit open-ended, with the question acting as a way, if the critic chooses, to address the personal side to their lives as critics, and perhaps how they see their work affecting society and culture.

Thanks for reading and more soon!


1: An interview with Rohan Maitzen

2: An interview with David Winters

3: An interview with Miriam Markowitz

4: An interview with Daniel Evans Pritchard

2 thoughts on “What is a critic’s role?

    • Thanks for reading this post and sharing the link. Nice to see Lee writing for 3:AM, and he raises some good points about the idea of literary citizenship, a term I hadn’t thought much about, and one that could mean various things to different people. Empty praise and relying on friends for publicity are common, but of course a lot of that is a reaction to industry pressure placed on writers forced to do the marketing themselves by publishers. It just goes around and around, a burden on writers everywhere. Anyway, hope you enjoy the interview series!


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